Ask the Expert: Better to go bulge or boutique at career start?

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Q. I'm in my second year of business school. I have one offer from a bulge-bracket bank and a couple from boutiques. Which? would be better for my career? I'm interested in both the long- and short-range considerations.

A. First of all, quit commoditizing yourself. There's no use separating what's good for your career from what's good for you as a person. Engage in an honest conversation with yourself about your priorities and style. Are status and prestige at the top of your list? Is it all about the bonus? Do you thrive under rapid-fire challenges or do you prefer to order them more methodically, one at a time? Are you a passionate proponent of your best ideas, or do you favor group-think?

The broad stereotypes of the bulge vs. boutique choice are easy to draw. Some believe that nothing beats the rigor and discipline of big-firm associate programs. Their formal, systematic approach to training new MBAs typically includes rotation through different groups, imparting a good overview of the business. They often run valuable mentoring programs and a variety of activities to help groom you as an up-and-coming professional. The big banks typically pay more, too, and if you're looking for status and prestige early in your career, this is where to find it.

What you probably won't find in the bulge club is the opportunity to move up quickly and take a leading role. As a student, you've paid for a place at the table where professors encourage your best thinking. As a professional at a large institution, your best ideas may be discouraged and you may have to give up credit or edit your thinking just when you feel most passionate about something.

At a boutique, you can expect to function somewhat less like a plebe. Boutiques take fewer recruits from business school. In these leaner shops, you may dig your teeth into very substantive work early on. You may find yourself shoulder-to-shoulder with some of the best and most experienced in their field. The interpersonal challenges are greater-and so is the chance for advancement.

But let's stop right here. It's easy to speak in generalities, but there are significant differences shop to shop. Is the bank on right trajectory or do things seem a bit shaky? Just as important, what is the group energy of the institution at hand? What is the emotional tone, the nuances of personal integrity-or lack thereof-that characterize the human element of any business environment? You can find positive group energy in the right department of a large firm or at the senior management level of a small firm. Make sure you do find it, though, because it will make all the difference in taking you-and your career-to the next level.

Next week's question: Is stuttering a disability one can overcome successfully working in financial services? What sectors would be more of an issue for both employee and employer?

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